“The Shadow Hero” revels in Chinese culture and so much more, addressing universal issues like the dynamics of family. In the case of this fabulous story, we have a most fabulous mother who leads the way. When Hua, middle-aged and disillusioned, finds herself rescued by an actual fly-thru-the-air superhero, she finds a new lease on life. And that lease depends upon her turning her teenaged son, Hank, into a superhero if it’s the last thing she ever does. This is how Gene Yang’s new graphic novel, “The Shadow Hero,” opens up. For this story, Yang writes and hands over the drawing to Sonny Liew.
Like all of his work, Yang’s narrative flows like a river, smooth, deep, with curves along the way. The idea behind this story is to reinvent an actual superhero character from the ’40s, the first Asian-American superhero. Yang goes about this with great flair, seamlessly letting his characters take over with all their idiosyncrasies.
Yang has much to balance. It seems that he’s in conversation with Chu Hing, the original creator of The Green Turtle, a character who only ran for five issues in a now obscure and long forgotten comic book. He is also in tune with Chinese culture and myth. And he’s dealing with his characters and us readers. Will we get it? Yang and Liew make that easy for us. At its heart, this is a story of courage, a “High Noon” sort of brave lone figure up against formidable odds. It is a story told with humor and grace.
Yang pays a wonderful tribute to the original creator, Chu Hing, by incorporating key elements from the original into this new story, also set in the 1940’s. The most striking is the shadow that guides Hank. There is no explicit explanation as to where the original shadow came from or what it symbolizes. Yang creates a back story with depth and whimsy. If you look at that original turtle shadow, amid a relatively primitive comic, stands a strange and stylish gem. Yang and Liew jump on that kooky turtle and gives it a fine polish.
It’s the beauty and strength of Yang’s writing that lifts this hero off the page. As comics historian Scott McCloud pointed out himself, in a panel conversation with Yang at this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego, it is Yang’s writing that rules the day. Here is a brief excerpt that McCloud cited:
“In the cargo bay of the boat, the tortoise came across a young man too drunk to remember how he got there.
They stuck a deal and the tortoise took up residence in the young man’s shadow.
That young man was my father.”
It is that level of writing and drawing that will have you floating right along. Follow Hank as he reluctantly lets his mother do her best to transform him into a superhero. And then, as he gets deeper into his new role, he finds himself with undeniable responsibilities to his family and his community. He becomes The Green Turtle and there’s no turning back.